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January 25, 2013

Baseball: 10 things we know

While individual workouts started almost two weeks ago, the South Carolina baseball team officially opens preseason camp today at Carolina Stadium in its quest for a fourth straight trip to the national championship series. Ten things we know:

1. Expectations remain very high: Chad Holbrook's promotion to coach after Ray Tanner was named athletic director doesn't change anything as far as the expectations surrounding the program. Advancing to the national championship series three straight years and winning consecutive national titles in 2010-11 has altered the landscape. The Gamecocks have reached the point where it's Omaha or bust. USC is ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason rankings.

"That's why our players come to play at South Carolina and certainly why our coaches are here coaching," Holbrook said on Thursday on 107.5 The Game. "We understand people around here want us to be pretty good and expect us to be pretty good. We have some talented kids that we can put out on the field. I'm looking forward to the season and our players have been working very hard."

2. Big shoes need big feet to fit them: The Gamecocks return six position starters, 13 pitchers and 25 letter-winners from last year's national runners-up. However, Michael Roth, Matt Price, Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli, four cornerstones of the national title teams, have departed, leaving huge voids to be filled. The good news is Holbrook believes their replacements will be able to pick up the slack.

"We have some big, big shoes to fill," Holbrook said. "We feel good about the guys we have. There are some subtle differences that will go on. But we return some local guys and faces that helped us get to Omaha last year. We have a lot of familiar faces. But we haven't put all those guys into roles yet, especially the pitchers. Coach (Jerry) Meyers will handle that. We are excited about the talent we have and the depth of our pitching staff."

3. Freshman Max Schrock will start at second base: Schrock was rated the No. 3 high school prospect in North Carolina last year by PerfectGame, and the fact that USC managed to steal the Cardinal Gibbons High School graduate and Chapel Hill, N.C., native away from the Tar Heels was an added bonus. Schrock was drafted in the 28th round by Arizona, but opted not to sign and play for the Gamecocks instead. Holbrook said describing Schrock as a polished freshman would be an understatement.

"He is a terrific, terrific player," Holbrook said. "We're counting on him to hit in the middle of our lineup from Day 1. Whether he hits in the two-, three- or four-hole, I don't know that yet. But he'll be in one of those slots that is consistent with who is your best hitter. We think Max is one of our best hitters, if not our best hitter. I know that's putting a little bit of pressure on a freshman, but we think the same about Max Schrock as we felt about Christian Walker when he was a freshman. We're excited about putting him in there."

4. Graham Saiko is the likely starter in left field: USC hasn't signed many players from Indiana, but Saiko was talented enough to shine for Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College in 2012, hitting .342 with a homer, a team-high 21 doubles, 20 stolen bases and 43 RBIs in 48 games. He was named First-Team All-Panhandle Conference and the Defensive Player of the Year. The JUCO transfer got acclimated to Columbia last summer by playing for the Blowfish, hitting .288 with four homers and 24 RBIs.

"Graham had a great fall and it looks like he is going to be the starter in left field on opening day," Holbrook said. "He's not a burner by any stretch, but he can run the bases very well. He will steal you some bases. He has a little pop in his bat. He only struck out twice all fall in over 50 at-bats. He can move the ball. He looks like he'll be a perfect two hole-type hitter. He knows how to play."

5. Tanner English is moving to center field: English (.298, six doubles, 23 RBIs in 2012) is the fastest player on the Gamecocks and a natural center fielder. That's where he played in high school. But Marzilli had the position locked down last season, starting all 69 games there. Holbrook would be ecstatic if English, who started 62 games in left, is able to duplicate that feat. Besides changing positions, English will also give switch-hitting a try after fanning a team-high 71 times last season.

"Tanner is now switch-hitting and we hope that will cut down on his strikeouts some," Holbrook said.

6. LB Dantzler and Chase Vergason are changing infield positions: With Schrock penciled in at second base, Holbrook has moved Vergason (43 starts at second in 2012), a hero of the postseason, to third. Where does that put Dantzler, one of two players (Walker was the other) on the 2012 team to reach double figures in homers? First base.

"Chase Vergason was one of our better hitters in the postseason," Holbrook said. "He's a guy I like down there at the bottom of the lineup. He's always on base and works the count. He'll take a walk or hit by pitch. He's always in the middle of something. So, we'll give him the first crack at third."

Dantzler and Vergason will compete with Kyle Martin (.295 in 78 at-bats last season) and Erik Payne (.265 in 98 at-bats), respectively, for the starting jobs at first and third.

"Kyle Martin and Erik Payne are chomping at the bit for a consistent opportunity. They want to be everyday players," Holbrook said. "We will certainly give them that opportunity. We hope those guys are ready."

Freshman George Iskenderian should compete for playing time at third, while freshman D.C. Arendas, a very polished defensive infielder, could be a valuable utility man at all three infield spots except for first.

"The third-base job has not been won by any stretch (by Vergason), but Chase will start the season there and we hope he finishes there because we love his experience, his maturity and his presence in the lineup at the bottom because he creates stuff for us."

7. The pitching staff is deep and filled with power arms: Although the loss of Roth (9-1, 2.43 ERA in 137 innings) and Price (5-5, 3.48 ERA, 13 saves in 77 2-3 innings) hurts, plenty of quality arms return from the 2012 staff that carried the Gamecocks to within two wins of a third straight national title at the College World Series. The group is led by three hurlers named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America team - senior left-hander Tyler Webb (6-1, 1.56 ERA in 57 2-3 innings), senior right-hander Colby Holmes (7-2, 3.05 ERA in 79 2-3 innings) and sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 3.62 ERA in 74 2-3 innings).

When you add into the mix veteran southpaws Nolan Belcher (4-2, 2.12 ERA) and Adam Westmoreland (2-1, 2.86 ERA), as well as senior right-hander Patrick Sullivan (0-0, 3.52 ERA), junior right-hander Forrest Koumas (2-3, 4.82 ERA) and sophomore righties Evan Beal (4-4, 3.81 ERA) and Joel Seddon (2-0, 2.76 ERA), the Gamecocks have the ingredients for one of the most dominant pitching staffs in the SEC.

8. The top two mound newcomers are freshmen Curt Britt and Jack Wynkoop: Like Schrock, Britt was one of the top high-school prospects in North Carolina last year, hailing from Scotland County High School, the same school that produced former defensive tackle Travian Robertson and former pitcher Parker Bangs. As a senior, the right-handed Britt compiled a stellar 8-0 record and 0.48 ERA in 56 innings pitched with 70 strikeouts.

Wynkoop, a southpaw, was rated by PerfectGame as the No. 146 high-school prospect in the nation, six spots higher than Britt, and the sixth-best high-school prospect in Virginia. His senior year statistics are remarkable: 8-0, 0.54 ERA, 64 innings, 80 strikeouts, seven walks. Wynkoop was twice named his conference's Player of the Year and was the 2012 VISAA Division II Player of the Year.

Britt and Wynkoop possess elite arms and will be counted on right away to be ready to pitch and contribute in big, pressure-filled moments.

"Curt Britt is going to pitch quite a bit for us," Holbrook said. "We think he has a bright future both as a pitcher and a hitter. Jack Wynkoop could factor into our weekend rotation as a freshman. We're excited about our newcomers. They're going to be a huge key whether we're able to have the type of season we're expecting to have and want to have."

9. USC must improve offensively: Because of a stellar pitching staff, the Gamecocks reached the national championship series despite a team batting average of just .265 in 69 games. They hit just 42 homers with a team slugging percentage of .387. While the toned-down bats have had a negative effect offensively around the country, USC often failed to produce at the plate as well. Holbrook wants marked improvement in his players' approaches at the plate.

"I hope we will be a much better offensive team than we were collectively last year," Holbrook said. "It's going to take all of our guys, not just our leadoff guy or the number-three guy. It will take our eight- and nine-hole guys to put consistent at-bats together. I like where we are offensively, but it's January. They've worked hard (in the batting cage) and in the weight room. They're strong guys and we're healthy for the most part."

Which players does Holbrook expect to see improvement in 2013? Sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner was exceptional defensively in 2012, but hit just .222 (43-for-194) with six homers and 32 RBIs. Vergason started slowly, but rebounded to finish with a .258 average (33-for-128).

"Grayson Greiner is a much better hitter than (his average in 2012)," Holbrook said. "I think he is going to have a great year for us offensively. Grayson was hurt most of last year with a nagging wrist injury that made it difficult to swing a bat. We think Grayson is going to have a great year."

10. Team speed will be a major strength: Between English, probable right field starter T.J. Costen (.275 in 51 at-bats), shortstop Joey Pankake, and a pair of football players (Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson), USC's total team speed should reach new heights in 2013.

"We feel very good about our athleticism and our speed," Holbrook said. "You add those football players into the mix, they can really run. Tanner can really run, T.J. Costen can really run and Joey Pankake is much better and he can run too. Heck, Max Schrock led our team in stolen bases this fall. It's going to be a little bit of a different team. We're not going to lead the country in home runs, but it will be a scrappy team that refuses to strike out and runs the bases hard and is very athletic."

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